By Talia Jessener
On Tuesday 10th January, the Henry Jackson Society welcomed Dr Craig Whiteside from the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism. In an age of an increasingly accessible media, propaganda has become one of the most powerful weapons used by ISIS. Whiteside, who has followed their publications since 2003, spoke on his recent paper: ‘Lighting the Path: the Evolution of the Islamic State Media Enterprise.’
He began by sketching an overview of the key media officers leading ISIS at various times, often right up until the moment they were killed or captured by the Western coalition. While faces and names changed when studying the profiles of the media officers, it was interesting that almost none had previous media or communications experience. What was more important to recruiters was that all senior media officials were deeply religious, with most having memorised the Koran. They also had to be educated, in order to successfully marry up ISIS actions with religious teachings.
Whiteside also spoke about structural changes within the media office based on changes to leadership. In 2006, for example, while ISIS were at their peak militarily, both their core media figures had just been killed and the media sector was disintegrating. This led the two new media heads to pursue a vigorous restructure of the department, expanding offices outside of the media headquarters to the provinces, and ensuring the continued resilience of the organisation. Likewise, in 2008-10 ISIS saw a similar demise in activities, with an increased rate of capture and defection of their members. And again, their media strategy was to further decentralise and diversify, pushing outlets to over ten different sub-offices.
When it came to the nature of their media, this too adapted to changing circumstances to become more resilient in the face of the Western coalition. Not only did they create media in foreign languages, produce newsletters and even create their own news agency for journalists to cite, they picked and chose the best tactics from other groups to ensure their publications went viral. At one point, Whiteside claimed, the media department were releasing 200 separate materials per week. However, when it came to the content of their videos, he believed the media officers made one crucial mistake. While there was always a focus on combat, the decision to video Western journalists being tortured and killed, rather than act as a deterrent for Western intervention as planned, actually backfired and only served to increase Western determination to destroy the group.
He concluding by clarifying his observations of ISIS. He highlighted how one of the most important things to the group was credibility, and being who they say they are, or else they run the risk of being perceived as unprincipled. Whiteside explained how the West must therefore delegitimise their cause at the root before hoping to defeat the group. He also underlined the importance of key individuals in the media department, emphasising why the offices took such a hit each time a media leader was captured or killed.
To conclude, Whiteside could not stress enough the importance of prioritising the demise of the media wing of ISIS as a prelude to defeating the group once and for all. While he accepted that a military victory would also be necessary, it was the media that amplified the message of the group and remains key to their high recruitment rates. Ultimately, it is the media that acts as the first line of defence, and, until the West realises this, Whiteside claimed, they will be facing a long and uphill struggle.
For a transcript of this event click here